Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Environmental Management 92 (2011) 1379-1384.


The conceptual underpinnings for adaptive management are simple; there will always be inherent uncertainty and unpredictability in the dynamics and behavior of complex ecological systems as a result non-linear interactions among components and emergence, yet management decisions must still be made. The strength of adaptive management is in the recognition and confrontation of such uncertainty. Rather than ignore uncertainty, or use it to preclude management actions, adaptive management can foster resilience and flexibility to cope with an uncertain future, and develop safe to fail management approaches that acknowledge inevitable changes and surprises. Since its initial introduction, adaptive management has been hailed as a solution to endless trial and error approaches to complex natural resource management challenges. However, its implementation has failed more often than not. It does not produce easy answers, and it is appropriate in only a subset of natural resource management problems. Clearly adaptive management has great potential when applied appropriately. Just as clearly adaptive management has seemingly failed to live up to its high expectations. Why? We outline nine pathologies and challenges that can lead to failure in adaptive management programs. We focus on general sources of failures in adaptive management, so that others can avoid these pitfalls in the future. Adaptive management can be a powerful and beneficial tool when applied correctly to appropriate management problems; the challenge is to keep the concept of adaptive management from being hijacked for inappropriate use.